Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Writer-director Rian Johnson has made a name for himself with his latest film “Looper.” I haven’t seen it, but I did catch up with his debut feature the other night. It’s called “Brick,” and I found it too clever by half. It’s an attempt to apply hard-boiled crime trappings to a contemporary teen setting. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a would-be gumshoe investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. That’s all I’ll say about the plot, as it’s too convoluted to synopsize (or follow). Suffice it to say that it involves Gordon-Levitt’s character skulking around his hometown, located somewhere in California, slowly gathering information and regularly getting clobbered by rednecks in wife-beaters.

Johnson gets the baroquely constipated, segmented-caterpillar quality of noir plotting, and he’s good at mimicking its odd stops and starts, its blackouts, and its recursiveness. But he missteps disastrously in his use of hard-boiled dialogue. A classic noir — “Out of the Past,” for instance — uses dialogue in a punctuational way, to dryly offset the lugubriousness of the subject matter and provide an occasional relief from tension (you giggle at its timing and perversity). Johnson, though, uses it like wallpaper: his characters speak in torrents, like those in Aaron Sorkin productions, and what comes out of their mouths is so gnomic that it causes you to fix on Johnson the writer rather than on the information being communicated. Here’s an example:

Big time. See the Pin pipes it from the lowest scraper for Brad Bramish to sell maybe. Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang and they’ll say they scraped it from that, who scored it from this, who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list always ends with the Pin. But I bet you if you got every rat in town together and said, “Show your hands” if any of them’ve actually seen the Pin, you’d get a crowd of full pockets.

Is Johnson trying to channel Chandler? If so, he’s missed the key element of Chandler’s style — its tonic economy. More likely, the dialogue is just an affectation, a decorative filigree that Johnson permits to overwhelm the whole movie because, well, he thinks it’s cool or something. Actually, a lot of “Brick” is like that — it’s a heaping pile of too much. Watching it, I kept thinking of Wes Anderson, whose work has a similar busyness of surface — and about as much going on under the hood.

The characters recall Anderson too: with their awkward stabs at aping Bogart and Mitchum, they’re like the kids in the movie-spoof plays in “Rushmore.” Are we meant to take their play-acting as charming and faux-naive, as Anderson means the “Rushmore” material to be taken, or is it intended as serious homage? I’m not sure, and I don’t think Johnson is either, because his attitude towards the material varies from scene to scene. One second it’s spoofy, the next it’s straining for tragedy.

It doesn’t help that his young actors tend to mumble, turning about a third of what they say into an unintelligible, slackery patois. This is a real problem in a whodunnit, where plot details are of principle importance, even when, as in “The Big Sleep,” the larger movements of the narrative are kept frustratingly vague. (Hawks’ film of “The Big Sleep” makes little sense as a whole, but the individual scenes are beautifully shaped and metered — and of course no one mumbles.) The brightest bit of casting is Nora Zehetner as a wan femme fatale. The performance is nothing much, but her presence lifts the movie slightly; she has the air of a forlorn jazz baby. If Johnson misses the Chandler target, Zehetner hits the Fitzgerald bullseye dead on. And all she has to do is stand there.

Gripes aside, there’s no denying Johnson’s talent. You need only watch a few minutes of “Brick” to know he’s a filmmaker. IMDB reveals that he started out as an editor, and it shows in the perhaps too-exacting way the movie’s visuals support its moods and action. And there are moments and images that make you gasp: a sudden cut to a man backgrounded by the flashing cars of a moving freight train; a girl raising her head into frame and transforming the shattered mirror behind her into a makeshift halo; a sinister wood-paneled room that has some of the shabby desolation one admires in Hopper or Lynch. All of this makes “Brick” worth putting up with even after you’ve lost track of the plot or become annoyed by its preciousness.

Has anyone seen “Looper”? The critics seem to like it. What’s your take on it?

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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16 Responses to “Brick”

  1. Nice review. I reacted to the film much more happily than you did, though. Clever-clever isn’t usually my kind of thing, and it’s not that I cared passionately about the film, but for whatever reason that particular evening I was amused. Here’s a little bit I scribbled down about it:

    “Fun hyper-stylized low-budget crime/revenge picture by Rian Johnson that blends noir and spaghetti westerns and sets the action in and around a contemporary California high school, with straight-faced, intense teens delivering dialogue that’s like a Mad magazine parody of already-overripe ‘40s-movie lines. It’s a little like Miller’s Crossing crossed with Cruel Intentions. Lots of droll and witty staging and camera-work, as well as hilariously deadpan and stylized acting from a lot of people.”


  2. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Glad to hear you liked it more than I did. I was probably too hard on it given that it’s a low-budget, first-effort kind of thing. I did appreciate the effort and the talent. But I could have turned it off after half an hour and felt like I got about all that it had to give. Not that that’s necessarily necessarily damning. Many movies don’t even give you that.

    It did leave me thinking that Johnson will end up having a significant career in movies.


  3. Fenster says:

    I am more where Fabrizio is at. Though to tell the truth I am perhaps not the best equipped to judge. I have seen Brick (I think) twice and keep forgetting that I have seen it at all. I remember the second time around thinking “hey I need to catch up with Brick–I haven’t seen it yet” and then, on watching, having that feeling that I saw that first scene before. I assumed it was maybe just the first scene but the more I saw the more I remembered seeing earlier. I am still not totally sure I have seen it all the way through.

    And while I don’t think it is quite as wan and precious as a Wes Anderson (what comes close, even?) it was pretty high up there in the stratosphere, where the oxygen gets thin. Or so I remember remembering.

    Will he have a great career? I dunno. Depends on whether he uses his fame to indulge his preciousness. I think that has been true of Anderson. I actually really like Bottle Rocket, but from then on it has been one too-clever-by-half after another, Anderson seeming to want to double down on his initial bet.


  4. Enzo Nakamura says:

    Terrific review. I remember liking Lukas Haas OK, that he, at least, had the best sense of timing to make the style work. I couldn’t get more than 10 minutes into BROTHERS BLOOM, but I’ll give LOOPER a spin.


  5. In either case — amused by it or not — I’m pretty sure that it isn’t a movie that’s going to mean a lot emotionally to many people.


  6. Brundle Guy says:

    I will speak up for Rian Johnson, and particularly here for Brick. In fact, I’m apparently going to go on about Brick for AGES, so the TL:DR of it all is that I like Brick, I can see why it could grate on some and the guy’s movies come with a particularly large amount of buy-in, but you should certainly try Looper out because I think he’s also got some undeniable talent.

    I was a sucker for Brick since it came out. Like Tarantino, who I will also champion, I think Johnson is extraordinarily adept at indulging in highly affected stylization while also mining the gutteral truths that lie underneath the genres he’s working from.

    To me, Brick isn’t just a style exercise or a lark, I think there’s a very specific brilliance to Johnson’s using Noir trappings in a high school setting because what he’s talking about in the movie is high school being that transitory state of moving from childhood into adulthood. Outside of possibly the Western, the Noir is, to me, the genre that traffics in the most heightened representations of MEN being MEN and WOMEN being WOMEN, so Noir becomes the perfect funhouse mirror to examine the outsized image of maturity and adulthood that high school students have.

    Johnson uses this to build some pretty funny set pieces (I particularly love the scene where I believe it’s The Pin’s mom breaks up a tense sitdown by offering orange juice), but those aren’t just jokes, they underline that these are children PLAYING at being adults, and they are getting into things way out of their depths. It also serves to later underline the tragedy when some of the characters don’t make it out of the story alive. These weren’t gangsters, they were kids, and some mother somewhere isn’t having their child come home tonight. Perhaps my biggest critique of the movie is that it doesn’t hit that note as hard as it could, but I can also see why it maybe didn’t.

    What Johnson’s doing is tricky, because weighing too much on the high school side makes the movie too twee, weighing too much on the Noir side would cause the movie to feel tone-deaf and absurd. What you have to do, and I think he does it well, is tie the two things together so tightly that both are constantly commenting on and furthering the other.

    And this gets back to my claim that Johnson truly understands Noir in a way that goes far beyond someone just sampling the stylings and the lingo. The main character, Brendan, is, I believe, an incredibly well-conceived and fleshed out Noir hero. He’s tough and smart, but also a loser, largely through his own pride and vanity. He knows how to give a punch, but more importantly he knows how and when to take one. He’s the kind of cynic that can only come from being a former idealist, and his role in the tragedies that play out is significant, moreso than even he realizes at first.

    Which brings me to the end, which I won’t spoil, but which I think pretty brilliantly ties it all together. Brendan solves the crime, which obviously he will, but finds himself extremely complicit in it, which neither he nor I as an audience member expected. And his complicity is of a kind that fits both the hard-boiled and frequently holier-than-thou Noir detective AND the snot-nosed, rather-be-a-loner-than-a-sellout high school smartass. At the end, Brendan is right, but he still loses anyway, in no small part because he’s kind of an asshole. Which seems a lot like Noir and a lot like high school to me.

    Now having argued that it’s NOT all style, let’s talk about the style a bit. Especially for a first time director, there’s some pretty stunning work here. There’s a chase scene at one point where the sound design begins heightening the footsteps, which just seems like a cool stylistic choice, but then one of the characters actually uses the sound of footsteps to bring the chase to an abrupt, violent end. It’s such a perfect, pure use of sound design and editing you could use it to teach a class.

    And while I can certainly understand people feeling like the dialogue gets a bit too much at points, I think parts of it are masterful. Again, I think Johnson’s not just using it to have silly fun with wacky genre language, I think he’s again drawing parallels to how in Noirs the criminals and the detectives all have their own language that’s actually similar to the slang of high school. And while the quote above is a bit dense with super-heightened lingo, it’s also from the character The Brain, the guy in school who knows a little bit about a lot of things. He’s the fast-talking informant, but even he can’t keep up with it all, as when he can’t actually figure out what a “Tug” is (it ends up being a person’s name) so he figures maybe it’s a drink, which again highlights children playing at being adults. And some of the dialogue is beautifully quick, fast and terse, like the line, ” I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.” or what is perhaps my favorite exchange in the movie, for reasons that should probably be obvious by now especially if you know how the movie ends, where our hero rings up the story’s femme fatale:

    Laura: Who is this?
    Brendan Frye: I won’t waste your time: you don’t know me.
    Laura: I know everyone, and I have all the time in the world.
    Brendan Frye: Ah, the folly of youth.

    Sorry to have gone on for so long, but I’ve been thinking about Johnson a lot lately, as I just saw Looper recently and loved it, and The Brothers Bloom was one of my favorite movie of 2008. So far Johnson is 3 for 3 with me, and I find it particularly impressive that his movies have so far been a Noir, a Con Movie and a Sci-Fi flick, and to my mind he’s demonstrated a pretty nuanced understanding of each genre. I don’t know what he’s doing next (as a horror nerd I’d LOVE to see what he’d do with a scare movie), but I’m pretty much assured to be in line.


  7. chucho says:

    Is noir a genre that’s just too conservative? Or I have I not seen enough of its mutated offspring to think something like “Brick” was pretty neat despite its shortcomings?

    Of course, “The Big Lebowski” is a much, much better noir homage, but the Coens weren’t attempting to play it as straight as Johnson.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Oh, there’s no doubt it’s pretty neat. I guess it’s just a question of far that neatness takes you. I have a habit of getting really bored with hyper-stylized things that are hard to follow. I have similar problems with Seijun Suzuki films. Fascinating filmmaker…but his movies put me to sleep. I’d like ’em way more if they were like 30 minutes long. I guess I’m square that way.

      I was going to mention the Coens in my write-up. They, along with Lynch (and perhaps Anderson), seem like major influences on Johnson. I actually found myself thinking that I would have liked “Brick” a lot more if it was more of a wild comedy, like “Lebowski.” The parts that are funny in “Brick” work pretty well (mostly little asides, like when you catch a glimpse of the tough guy’s family, and they’re all wearing identical wife-beaters). But then I don’t love the Coens either. I tend to only like their funny movies, things like “Raising Arizona.”


  8. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    Just watched it. I found the dialogue hard to understand and the story hard to follow too, but I enjoyed it more than FdW did. That wood-panelled room the Pin used as his office came off as very Lynchian to me.

    IMDb says the movie was filmed in San Clemente, which is about halfway between Orange County and San Diego. This movie and “Savages” would make a good South Orange County crime movie double bill.


  9. Fake Herzog says:

    I just saw Looper and while I generally liked it, as with all time travel movies the central paradox of the film bugs me — how does Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Bruce Willis go back in time if he has already gone back and been killed by himself?

    I liked the subplot with the kid and Jeff Daniels was great.


  10. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    Haven’t seen Brick, but I have a general problem with noir in the present age: the original genre took place against a backdrop of ultra-squeeky clean middle class America, and the genre was a peek into a world unknown. Now the opposite is true: grungy dark crap is the norm, everywhere you look. What role can the style serve beyond pastiche in such a setting? Now the most radical thing anyone could make would be a completely sincere big screen remake of Father Knows Best.


  11. Fenster says:

    Agree with Mr. BH. Father Knows Best was redone, as American Beauty.


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